Time's Arrow

Over a decade into the digital age, CD reissues are becoming increasingly esoteric, increasingly lengthy, and--for aurally fixated folks like myself--increasingly fun. Not only did '97 bring back the legendary Harry Smith box, it also offered a gold mine of single and multidisc nuggets: rare soundtracks, salsa from Celia Cruz, indie rock from Squirrel Bait, Alan Lomax's field recordings. In compiling our reissues list, I went for scope, history, and, above all, pleasure. But, in the end, I just ended up with a lot of jazz...and Steve Reich, who's made me happier in these first days of 1998 than anything this side of central heating.

VARIOUS ARTISTS

Brown Eyed Soul: The Sound of East L.A.,

Vol. 1-3 (Rhino)

This first-ever compilation of Chicano R&B is much more than the cultural-studies assignment some might take it for. These three CDs sugarload us with indispensable third-tier rock & roll and R&B, Sam Cooke-ing balladeers struggling to turn their brown eyes blue, and some decidedly red-eyed funk. The sound of East L.A. in the '60s and '70s may have produced few, if any, groundbreakers (the advent of Los Lobos was still decades away). But having Thee Midniters, El Chicano, the Premiers, and Brenton Wood and his irresistible "Baby You Got It" saved from obscurity is a gift indeed.

UMC'S

Fruits of Nature (Wild Pitch)

"It's you and me against the majority," this unknown Native Tongues crew rapped to the gangstaficating rap masses that snubbed their wacky wack wonderful 1991 debut. Sure, they dressed like extras from Saved By the Bell. But their jazz hop still buries anything Digable Planets ever did. Stuffed with ingenious samples--cellos, bop pianos, and the precocious tykes of the Berkeley Carroll Summer Choir--this "world improva...supa dupa" fly album stands with Critical Beatdown by the Ultramagnetic MCs (no relation) as one of hip hop's few lost classics.

MILES DAVIS

Dark Magus: Live At Carnegie Hall

(Columbia/Legacy)

Captured in 1974, when his mood swings had long left the jazz (and rock?) crowd in the dust, Miles's polyrhythmic noise-funk is so heavy it could squash the combined virility of Tricky, the Wu-Tang Clan, and (while we're at it) Missy Elliott too. Drummer Al Foster throws his jungle grooves down an elevator shaft, and a yowling Miles and Co. cannonball in after him. There ain't no bottom.

MICHAEL HURLEY

Snockgrass (Rounder)

A misanthropic young coot who, at his best, could make Frederick Exley look like Bobby McFerrin, the Hurley of 1980's Snockgrass was a dystopian folkie set adrift in post-Hippieland, armed with all the emotional coping skills of a lemming. Abjuring any impulse to make sense of it all, he found mercy in weaving simple, languid, folk tunes, rooted in detailed accounts of quotidian delights--watching sunsets, drinking porter, eating pork chops, going down. And he etched tunes sweet enough to make such minutiae seem like a cosmology.

VARIOUS ARTISTS

Township Jazz 'N' Jive: 18 South African Urban Swing Classics From the Jivin' '50s (Music Club)

Summertime nuggets from the heyday of a South African urban jazz scene that was strongly influenced by the American swing of the '30s and '40s. Each tune is so sweet and dandy you almost want to let yourself trust it, fall in love, maybe start pricing furniture together. Bad idea. This music is ephemera: rhythm and blues sans the blues; swing without a stitch of sadness; some fleeting lovers' pop; and a hint of rumba. Less beautiful than sexy.

CHARLES MINGUS

Passions of a Man: The Complete Atlantic Recordings 1956-1961 (Rhino)

From the cathedral of Ellington's elegant orchestrations to the foothills of free formalism, the music Mingus composed and performed in the late '50s was a Penn Station of possibility--a place where all blues music could meet and take off for new destinations. This six-disc set covers an astonishingly prolific period in the booming bassist-bandleader's career: from the absurd beat suite The Clown to Paris performances with Bud Powell and Eric Dolphy that are so impassioned they almost seem furious--even when the bossman is yelling for Jesus.

STEVE REICH

Works 1965-1995 (Nonesuch)

Ten CDs spanning the career of a "minimalist" composer whose music disproved the dreary theory that most 20th-century composers use to fend off the fact that normal people can't listen to their music. Sure, Reich's tape-loop experiments may seem repetitive to casual listeners, and asensual dolts might call his spacious voice-rhythm conversations "new age." But his coolest stuff--milking marimbas, spacing in on clapping hands, grooving out on the sound of the human voice--has a full-bodied flow rock and rollers call groove, and a tail-end quiver ravers call drum'n'bass. His attempt at turning William Carlos Williams's poetry into orchestra music kinda sucked, but hey, what the hell.

 
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